SAN DIEGO — Lionel James, the Chargers running back known as “Little Train” who was a sparkplug and record-breaker in the team’s backfield in the 1980s, has died after a lengthy illness, his alma mater Auburn University announced Friday. He was 59.

The 5-foot-6 tailback was named the Chargers’ Most Valuable Player in 1985 after leading the team in rushing, receiving and kickoff and punt return yardage. He also led the AFC in receptions that season with 86 while setting the NFL record for receiving yards by a running back with 1,027.

James attended Auburn, where he starred in the early 1980s, leading the Tigers in rushing in 1981 and ranks No. 18 on the school’s career rushing list with 2,068 yards from 1980-83.

“Lionel James defined Auburn football for a generation,” said former Auburn sports information director and director of athletics David Housel.

In 2006, James was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame after leading Auburn to its first SEC championship in 26 years.

“Pound for pound one of the greatest all-purpose players to play the game of football,” Auburn backfield mate Tommie Agee said. “Always put the team first. He was one of the reasons why I came to Auburn.  He showed me what the Auburn family, the Auburn team, was all about on my official visit.” 

After his retirement from the NFL, James returned to Auburn and graduated in 1989. He also was named the university’s tight ends coach in 1996-97.

“Lionel James – the Little Engine That Could. All of the things you want to think Auburn football is about, Lionel James summarized,” Housel said. “He wasn’t big in stature, but he was big in heart, and he symbolized Auburn football for a generation or more.”